Flint, MI—Tucked away to stage left in the Flint Institute of Music’s (FIM) MacArthur Recital Hall is “Lady Barton,” a theatre pipe organ originally installed at Flint’s Capitol Theatre in 1928.
She’s gold and red, adorned in ornate dragons, and slides out on a raised pedestal for select performances.
Aside from her three rows of piano-like keys, Lady Barton has numerous pedals and an array of buttons that play sounds, like a police siren or bird song, previously meant to complement the silent films of her heyday.
“Since the early 1900s, before Hollywood could figure out how to put sound with the movie, the organist or pianist would sit right there,” said Dr. Quincy Dobbs pointing to an area directly in front of the stage, “and watch the movie and accompany the movie.”
Dobbs teaches piano and organ at FIM, but he’s also the president of the Flint Theatre Organ Club (FTOC), making him a top authority on the history of the Barton organ as well as one of its most frequent players.
A brief history of Lady Barton and her club
According to FTOC records, the club’s origins go back to 1967.
The then-Flint Capitol Theatre Organ Club was formed by “a small group of pipe organ enthusiasts” that would meet up to play the theatre’s Barton pipe organ on Saturday nights after the its last evening movie.
In 1970, the group began work on restoring the organ, which they said had deteriorated over the years.
When the Capitol shuttered in October 1976, the club claims it was “instrumental” (whether the pun is intentional is unclear) to convincing then-owner Butterfield Theaters to donate the pipe organ to FIM.
“Urban legend is [they sold it] for a dollar,” Dobbs said, his long white beard parting to show a smile.
In November of the same year, club members dismantled the organ and brought it over to FIM, painstakingly reassembling it over the next 14 months.
Their efforts are evidenced by a small type-written note hung on the wall of the room housing Lady Barton’s pipes and various other instruments. The note states that some “really busted themselves for a year” on the installation. Its paper is yellowed, taped and dated Nov. 3, 1978.
Since then, according to Dobbs, the FTOC, as it is now named, has volunteered many hours to restoring and improving the instrument. They purchased and connected a player piano in 1979 and later added a set of orchestra bells too. They also altered the MacArthur Recital Hall’s back wall to create sound openings in 1997 and restored the organ’s console between 1999 and 2000.
But more recently, Dobbs said, Lady Barton’s repairs and improvements, along with her enthusiasts, have dwindled.
“People have been dying,” Dobbs explained, naming one member, Pearl Carrels, by name. “It was real sad… when she passed, she was the oldest surviving, performing member. She’d played downtown at the Capitol.”
According to Carrels’ obituary, the organ enthusiast was 95 at the time of her death in 2016—a death that also seemed to take the life from the quirky little club she’d been a part of for so many years.
“That was like the end of an era,” Dobbs said.
‘He was ready to give it up’
When Jim Thompson joined the Flint Theatre Organ Club in December 2022, he felt the absence of that enthusiastic, quirky spark he’d expected of the FTOC.
“Two weeks ago, he was ready to give it up,” Thompson said of Dobbs in early March 2023. “Because everybody has left, see?”
Dobbs confirmed to Flint Beat that Thompson’s take had been true, as the organ’s needed repair and upgrade bill is now estimated to be around $120,000.
Thompson is himself from a family full of trained musicians and performing artists, and said he’d wanted to help Dobbs restore the club as much as its star, Lady Barton.
So, he suggested putting on a performance for St. Patrick’s Day, a sort of fundraiser event, to support the organ’s repairs and remind people of her unique place in Flint’s history.
“I said ‘I’ll help you,’” Thompson said. “My son Rick will help you, my wife will help you.”
Thompson said he’d offered up his whole family’s support, one of whom works just next door at FIM’s Whiting Auditorium.
Dobbs noted another FIM faculty member also supported the St. Patrick’s event idea, and now the FTOC will be hosting “All Things Irish” on Saturday, March 18 at 7 p.m. at FIM’s MacArthur Theatre.
“I’m going to accompany a silent movie: The Lad from Old Ireland, a 1910 silent movie,” Dobbs explained from the FIM recital hall’s stage. “And then the singers are going to sing Irish ballads and Irish songs.”
Dobbs also noted that the club’s newest “organ enthusiast” member would also be supporting the event, too.
“Jim is the emcee, and he has the gift of gab,” Dobbs said, his smile again peeking out from his long, white beard.
What’s next for Lady Barton
While Dobbs and Thompson both said they likely won’t raise $120,000 at a single, donation-based St. Patrick’s Day event, each seemed hopeful the renewed energy from the concert will help keep the club—and thereby Lady Barton—going a little longer.
“We will push at this concert and future concerts to become a member or friend,” Dobbs said. “Yes, maintenance and repair is paramount, [but] keeping the organ and its music and its place in entertainment history is the focus of the club.”
Dobbs noted that after professional upgrades were made to the nearly 100 year old theatre pipe organ, he believed “small things” could be kept going by trained amateurs.
For his part, Thompson said that he’d love to see what more club members could do to preserve and renew interest in Lady Barton.
“I would like to see us have a number of people meet, so that we can have a collective energy, you know, to really—excuse me—get it ‘fine tuned,’” Thompson said. “I’d like to see that happen.”